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Danish Reactions to German Occupation: History and Historiography

Danish Reactions to German Occupation: History and Historiography

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Danish Reactions to German Occupation: History and Historiography

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Feb 6, 2017


For five years during World War II, Denmark was occupied by Germany. While the Danish reaction to this period of its history has been extensively discussed in Danish-language publications, it has not until now received a thorough treatment in English. Set in the context of modern Danish foreign relations, and tracing the country’s responses to successive crises and wars in the region, Danish Reactions to German Occupation brings a full overview of the occupation to an English-speaking audience. Holbraad carefully dissects the motivations and ideologies driving conduct during the occupation, and his authoritative coverage of the preceding century provides a crucial link to understanding the forces behind Danish foreign policy divisions.

Analysing the conduct of a traumatised and strategically exposed small state bordering on an aggressive great power, the book traces a development from reluctant cooperation to active resistance. In doing so, Holbraad surveys and examines the subsequent, and not yet quite finished, debate among Danish historians about this contested period, which takes place between those siding with the resistance and those more inclined to justify limited cooperation with the occupiers – and who sometimes even condone various acts of collaboration.

Praise for Danish Reactions to German Occupation

‘Carsten Holbraad's scrupulously impartial survey of Denmark's history in the Second World War and of Danish historiography concerning the period is a great boon to Anglophone readers. Almost all of the hundreds of works he cites are available only in Danish, and most English-language studies of his topic are badly dated.’
Michigan War Studies Review

Feb 6, 2017

Informazioni sull'autore

Carsten Holbraad studied at the LSE with a Leverhulme undergraduate scholarship, and gained a DPhil at the University of Sussex in the field of European history of ideas. He has held research and teaching positions at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the ANU in Canberra, Carleton University and Queen’s University in Canada, El Collegio de Mexico and at LSE and UCL. His previous books include Internationalism and Nationalism in European Political Thought (2003) and Danish Neutrality (1991).

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Danish Reactions to German Occupation - Carsten Holbraad

Danish Reactions to German


Danish Reactions to

German Occupation

History and Historiography

Carsten Holbraad

First published in 2017 by

UCL Press

University College London

Gower Street

London WC1E 6BT

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Text © Carsten Holbraad, 2017

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To the memory of Jørgen Hæstrup – who started it all.


In Danish Neutrality: A Study in the Foreign Policy of a Small State (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1991), I identified and analysed certain ideas and attitudes behind Danish foreign policy in modern and contemporary history. Focusing on situations of crisis or war in the region, I detected two opposing tendencies in Danish reactions, namely towards engagement in and withdrawal from international conflict.

At one stage, I considered the idea of following up with a briefer work which would explore a similar duality of attitudes to foreign affairs to be found in some modern Danish fictional literature. Instead, I decided to narrow the historical focus, and examine Danish reactions to the country’s most traumatic experience in recent history: the five years of German occupation during the Second World War. There were two reasons for this choice.

In a conversation with my son and his friend Morten A. Pedersen – both members of the small and exclusive group of Danish anthropologists with a PhD from King’s College, now known as the Cambridge Danes – Morten pointed out that there was a need for someone to get on top of the ongoing debate among historians and others about Danish conduct during the German occupation.

On a more personal level, a topic focusing on that relatively brief period had the attraction of taking me back to the subject matter of my initial introduction to historical research. As a high-school student at Sct. Knuds Gymnasium in Odense who had mastered the skills of stenography and typing, I spent most of my spare time in 1947–48 working as a secretary to Jørgen Hæstrup, a young and dynamic history master who recently had started collecting material about the resistance movement for the Danish Public Record Office. Destined to become the leading historian of Danish resistance and its links with Britain, he was in the process of locating secret archives and securing written verbal reports from key resistance figures.

Taking down reports and typing out archival material, I met quite a few members of the resistance and gained some knowledge of its activities. I also formed a good working relationship with Hæstrup. Though I was unable to accept repeated invitations in later decades to join his group of young occupation historians, my friendship with him lasted till his death in 1998. Thus, it is appropriate to dedicate this work to the memory of Jørgen Hæstrup. It offers a spectral analysis of Danish reactions to the German occupation and presents a critical overview of subsequent and recent historiographical debate about a crucial national experience not yet fully digested.

The first part of the book presents Danish conduct in the Second World War in a historical context by sketching out the foreign relations of the country in modern times and tracing its reactions to successive crises and wars in the region. For its earlier sections, I draw on my first book about the history of Danish foreign policy, mentioned above.

The second part lays out the historically attested and widely known reactions to German occupation from the invasion on 9 April 1940 to the liberation on 5 May 1945. However, for analytical reasons, the order of presentation is logical rather than chronological, ranging from willing cooperation at one end to armed resistance at the other. Yet, that order happens to correspond fairly well with the actual chronological development over the five years.

The third part of the book deals with the historiography about the occupation period, from the first post-war decades till well into the present century. Three waves of writings have been distinguished. The post-war works, mostly written by historians and other writers who identified with the resistance movement, tended to present a picture of growing resistance backed by increasing public support. Subsequently a revisionist wave of scholarship took a more critical view of resistance, perhaps at the same time adopting a more sympathetic attitude to cooperation. More recently, a second wave of revisionism, less interested in the history of resistance, took up the cases of various groups of individuals who had engaged in some form of collaboration with the occupiers. That part closes with a tentative overview of recent trends in scholarly debate and a brief presentation of recurrent public discourse about Danish reactions to the occupation.

Though Norway occasionally has been brought into the picture, no attempt has been made in this book to make comparisons and draw parallels with other countries under German occupation. Each such country was in a geopolitical situation of its own in relation to the European conflict, and had its own history of interacting with rivalling great powers and its own tradition of dealing with a preponderant and threatening power. Moreover, the policy and conduct of the occupying power varied from country to country. Thus, as for both its situation and its conduct during the Second World War, Denmark was a special case, which should be examined separately rather than fitted into some quasi-comparative framework.

Much of the book was researched and written while I was Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at UCL. As such, I much enjoyed the use of the UCL Library’s excellent collection of books about the history, politics and culture of Denmark and other Nordic countries.

I am grateful to Knud J.V. Jespersen, professor emeritus at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, for generous and useful comments on an early draft. The constructive criticism and good advice of the anonymous reviewers are also much appreciated. In particular, I am indebted to the expert on Danish occupation historiography for helping me find a way through recent literature.


C. H.



1Traumas and trends

1.1 1814

1.2 1864

1.3 1914

1.4 1940

2 1940–45: From cooperation to resistance

2.1 Support

2.2 Cooperation

2.3 Opposition

3 Since 1945: From resistance to collaboration

3.1 Concord

3.2 Conflict

3.3 Discord

3.4 Debate

3.5 Discourse



Works cited



For Denmark, the most momentous experience of the twentieth century was the five years of German occupation during the Second World War. As a crisis in the political history of the country, it was in some respects comparable to the two major traumas of the nineteenth century, namely the unfortunate involvement in the later stages of the Napoleonic Wars and the disastrous defeat in the war with the German Confederation half a century later. As in those earlier crises, the impact of the war profoundly affected the Danish conception of the international situation of the country and influenced its foreign policy for a long time.

But the nature of the experience of invasion, occupation and liberation, and its effects on the national psyche and future foreign policy, made it very different from the two low points in the earlier century. Both the involvement with Napoleonic France and the war with Bismarck’s Prussia in 1864 led to defeat and very substantial losses of territory and population. After 1814 and, even more so, after 1864 Denmark went through a crisis of anxiety about survival as a sovereign state. In both situations the most significant political outcome was a reinforcement of an already existing tendency to try to steer clear of European power politics. On the other hand, the period of German occupation, which was marked initially by reluctant cooperation with the authorities of the occupying power but later also by growing active resistance, led to a national soul-searching and a reconsideration of the country’s role in international relations. One outcome was a tentative revival of a much older tradition of Danish foreign policy, which had been characterized by a more active engagement in the international politics of the region. However, the inclination inherited from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, towards disengagement and neutrality in international conflict, survived. Thus the years of occupation became a quasi turning-point in the history of Danish foreign policy.

For much of the second half of the twentieth century Danish politics became marked by a recurrent debate between those who sought a fuller and more committed involvement in the policies and activities of the Western alliance and a more willing participation in the drive towards a degree of European integration and, on the other hand, those who stuck to a more cautious and hesitant line in both NATO and EC relations. Thus, in periods of the East–West conflict, the alliance and security policies as well as the European policy of the country often came to appear half-hearted. The debate continued, though in a lower key, after the end of the cold war, when it at stages came to focus on Danish participation in the US-led wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

Throughout, the issue was essentially between those who recognized that the wider issues of international politics were crucial enough for Denmark to engage actively in the conflicts and pursuits of the region and those who were content with guarding customary Danish values and interests by keeping a low profile in international politics. In terms of party politics, the division between the former and the latter was largely between right-of-centre and left-of-centre sections of the Danish political spectrum.

On a more intellectual level, the debate may even be seen as roughly reflected in the works of historians and other writers dealing with the Danish reactions to German occupation. The first post-war writings on that subject, most of them written by people who identified with the resistance movement, tended to present the period of occupation as a picture of growing resistance backed by wide popular support, and to give less attention to the presence of cooperation with the German authorities and divisions of opinion in the country. The first wave of revisionist writings queried the strength and efficacy of the resistance, cast doubt on the degree of support it enjoyed and often took a more sympathetic view of the policy and practice of governmental and administrative cooperation with the enemy. A later revisionist wave subjected the resistance movement to criticism more on moral grounds, condemning in particular the practice of shooting informers, and dealt sympathetically with various sets of individuals who, in one way or another, had engaged in personal collaboration with agents of the occupying power. The first post-war historians, to the extent that they accepted the goals and means of the resistance, were in tune with those who advocated a more active engagement in international politics. The revisionists, judging by their antipathies as well as their sympathies, on the whole seemed closer to those who kept an eye on the narrow and immediate interests of the Danish people and opted for a more passive or minimal role in foreign politics.

In more recent years the historical debate intensified, with not only historians and writers but also some politicians and other prominent persons, including a few survivors of the resistance, taking part. The behaviour of the Danes during those five years, at official as well as more private and individual levels, once again became the subject of heated exchanges in the media. Now, more than 70 years after the end of the occupation, the politics and morality of the people who lived through it still seem to be divisive issues, for scholars as well as a wider public.

That the conflict between cooperation and resistance under occupation remains unresolved may be seen as evidence of a profound ambivalence in the mentality of a people conditioned by traumatic defeats and losses and split between opposite reactions to conflict and crisis. On a deeper level of analysis, however, the issue can be understood in terms of the history and geography of a country for centuries burdened with the predicament of being a small state in an exposed strategic location.

The aims of the present study are, first, to consider the whole range of Danish reactions to German occupation, from willing collaboration at one end to armed resistance at the other; then to examine the long debate since 1945 and explore the political and moral dimensions of both the policy of cooperation and the course of resistance; and finally to view those opposite positions in the context of traditional ideas and attitudes relating to conflict and war. It follows that a brief preparatory overview of the trends of thought and tendencies of behaviour that came to characterize Danish conduct of external relations in the centuries preceding the invasion of Denmark in 1940 will be useful.


Traumas and trends

The foremost watershed in the history of Danish–Norwegian and Danish foreign policy is the end of the Great Northern War in 1720. In the centuries before that year Denmark–Norway, with Iceland and Greenland, colonies in the Caribbean, India and West Africa and a powerful navy, played a very active part in the politics of the region. As a major power situated by the Baltic Sea, it fought aggressive and defensive wars, mostly against Sweden, and gained and lost territories. In the centuries following 1720 Denmark–Norway, and later Denmark, adopted an increasingly passive role in European politics. Taking leave of one means after another of conducting foreign policy, the kingdom gradually resigned itself to the fate of a small state. While becoming ever more preoccupied with international trade, international law, international morality and international organization, Denmark eventually came close to turning its back on international politics.

The retreat from power politics, which went on till the middle of the twentieth century, comprised several stages. Each stage may be defined by reference to the character of the policy pursued by the kingdom in conflicts among the European powers. The first one lasted from the end of the Great Northern War to the country’s involuntary involvement in the Napoleonic Wars in 1807. During this long period Denmark–Norway managed to secure neutral status in the various wars that occurred. However, while steering clear of actual hostilities between the emerging great powers, it participated in the shifting alliances of the European balance of power, which was possible under the loose and rather accommodating rules of neutrality then prevailing. The second stage began at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and finished soon after the First World War. Apart from its own wars with its southern neighbours, Denmark again stayed neutral in all wars in this period. But its position among the powers changed. While most of the time armed with fairly substantial military forces, the country was now so isolated that it played only a minimal role in the working of the balance of power. The last stage of the Danish retreat from international politics lasted from the initial years of the League of Nations to the later part of the Second World War. In this period Denmark remained diplomatically isolated, but now based its policy of neutrality on extremely weak military foundations.

Apart from 1720 itself, the most formative years in the history of Danish foreign policy were 1814, when the kingdom lost Norway to Sweden only half a dozen years after losing its navy to Britain; 1864, when German forces defeated the Danes and all of Schleswig-Holstein went to Prussia; and 1914, when Denmark declared strict neutrality in the hostilities but gave Germany certain assurances. While the events marked by the year 1814 dwarfed the kingdom and those of 1864 checked its territorial ambitions, the conjuncture of 1914 established Denmark on its course of disengagement and neutrality. Twenty-five years later, when another major war broke out in its vicinity, Denmark again declared its neutrality, in the hope that this policy would once more see the country through the hostilities unscathed. Instead, it led to German invasion and five years of occupation. That experience started a debate about the prudence and morality of Danish international conduct which is not yet over.

Though a member of one or other of the great European alliance systems most of the time since 1720, Denmark did not become involved in the actual hostilities of any of the major wars during the period. Despite several close shaves, it also managed to avoid wars with its northern and North German neighbours. Thus, much of the time during more than 80 years of peace Denmark was in the fortunate position of being able to concentrate its international efforts on the economic interests of the country. When major powers were at war, it could carry on its shipping and develop its commerce, and enjoy the advantages of increased demand for such services brought about by the war. This lenient and prolonged experience of European politics was bound to affect the style of the kingdom’s diplomacy and the nature of its foreign policy, and perhaps even the Danish conception of international politics in general.

In playing the European balance of power cautiously and defensively, and exploiting the absence of established conventions of neutrality through skilful bargaining with belligerents, Denmark developed a decidedly pragmatic and opportunistic form of diplomacy. ‘To plead our case and steal our way through as best we can,’ as O.H. Guldberg, head of government from 1780 to 1784, once put it, became the Danish way.¹

The circumstance that Denmark, usually enjoying the protection or support of some powerful ally, often could afford to devote its efforts to championing the rights and exploiting the advantages of neutrals tended to give its foreign policy a mercenary character. In crisis or war, when some other states might have to struggle for security and survival, Denmark could go on enriching itself. The prosperity that the kingdom enjoyed in the second half of the century helped to substantiate the notion of foreign policy as largely a pursuit of economic interests.

The long-lasting combination of peace and prosperity also helped to foster a conception of international politics as essentially a competition for economic advantage, rather than a rivalry for power and struggle for survival. Among those responsible for shaping and directing the kingdom’s foreign policy it may even have given rise to a certain smugness about Danish conduct in European affairs. In a confidential letter written in 1757, J.H.E. Bernstorff, who conducted the foreign policy of the kingdom from 1751 to 1770, told a friend that ‘a war started without just reason – I will go even further: without necessity, seems to me to be the most dreadful of all decisions that human beings could take’.² In retrospect, eighteenth-century Danish neutrality may be seen as not only the first phase of a withdrawal from European power politics, but also as the beginning of what might be described as a process of sentimentalizing the nature of international relations. Though the sovereign identity, territorial extent, political system and social structure of Denmark, as well as the international conditions of Europe, all changed, that process continued in the following centuries.

1.1 1814

In the final decades of the first long period of neutrality distinguished here, the diplomatic situation of Denmark–Norway worsened considerably. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars it soon became more difficult to secure the basic interests of the kingdom by playing the European balance of power the way earlier statesmen had done, and sometimes also more dangerous to champion the rights and exploit the advantages of neutrals. Having tried, in rapidly changing international circumstances, to steer a safe course between great-power rivals and, at the same time, uphold its preferred principles of neutrality, Denmark ended up as an ally of Napoleonic France. The seven years of war that followed started with a major disaster for the kingdom and ended with an even greater one.

In the crises and wars of the earlier part of the period, Denmark had predominantly followed its own neutral course, which on the whole had been cautious and defensive. In the later decades, however, it moved, sometimes by force of events and sometimes deliberately, towards a collective and more offensive policy of neutrality. In 1794 Denmark and Sweden signed a neutrality convention, and in the following years demonstrated their willingness jointly to defend their neutral status in the French Revolutionary War. However, while making the most of the economic opportunities presented by a war which involved all the great powers of Europe, the Danish government refused to provide convoys for its ships and avoided challenging Britain diplomatically.

This measure of restraint disappeared after 1797, when crown prince Frederick as regent took over the direction of foreign policy. Within a year his government provided convoys and ordered commanding officers to refuse visitations by belligerent powers, and if necessary to back the refusal with armed force. Eventually the new policy led to clashes in the Mediterranean between Danish convoys and ships of the British navy. When the British government reacted, the Danes refused to back down, and maintained the principle of the inviolability of neutral convoys in the expectation that Denmark would have the support of Russia, which by then had left the coalition against France. While Denmark appealed to Russia to revive the Armed Neutrality League of 1780, Britain sent a diplomat to Copenhagen to enforce an agreement. Faced with a threat of bombardment by a squadron of the British navy, the Danish government gave way temporarily. Shortly thereafter the tsar invited Denmark, Sweden and Prussia to join Russia in re-establishing an Armed Neutrality League, a principal aim of which would be to enforce the inviolability of neutral convoys. Hopeful that such an alignment would lead to a negotiated settlement with Britain and a formal acknowledgement of the principles of neutrality that Denmark had long been championing, the Danish government decided to accept the invitation.

However, far from strengthening its bargaining position by this move, Denmark soon ended up a victim of new developments in the relationships of the great powers. While tension between Russia and Britain rapidly rose, the tsar and Napoleon moved closer to each other. Denmark, aware that Sweden had been trying to secure Russian support for an attempt to conquer Norway, recognized that it would be geopolitically dependent on Russia in an armed conflict between Britain and the two strongest powers on the Continent. So when Britain sent a fleet to Danish waters and presented an offer of a defensive alliance, the government refused, and engaged in an unequal battle with Nelson’s squadron at Copenhagen. In the armistice negotiations it procrastinated, and accepted the British terms only after the death of Tsar Paul and the succession of his pro-British son Alexander I.

A few months later Denmark’s diplomatic situation became even more difficult. In a Russo–British convention Alexander renounced not only the principle of the inviolability of neutral convoys but also the rather more important one of ‘free ship, free cargo’ which Denmark had championed for generations. Unable to secure a release of the Danish ships captured and a return of the colonies occupied by Britain during the hostilities unless it accepted unconditionally the terms of the convention, the government gave in to the pressures of the two powers and acceded to their convention. This was the end of the Danish policy of offensive neutrality. When, in 1803, the war with Napoleon broke out again, the government returned to the tradition of defensive neutrality, forbidding those practices which in the past had provoked Britain while, at the same time, taking care not to provoke France.

Thus, when four years later Denmark found itself exposed to diplomatic pressures even severer than those experienced after Frederick assumed responsibility for foreign policy it had little to do with the nature of its neutrality policy. The reason was another realignment of the great powers. Following the defeat of the Russian army by the French in 1807, the tsar signed a peace treaty by which he undertook to accede to the Continental System of blockade and to join Napoleon in forcing the remaining neutrals to close their ports to all British shipping. A month later Denmark received ultimatums from both France and Britain, each of which presented the government with the choice between becoming an ally and being treated as an enemy. For Britain, the real concern was with the Danish navy, which, if it fell under French control, would complicate British naval movements and economic warfare. Hence the British government demanded that Denmark either became an ally and put its navy under British command or handed it over as a pledge of Danish neutrality. When the crown prince turned down the ultimatum, a British fleet prepared to blockade Zealand and landed troops north of Copenhagen. The Danish government responded by declaring war. After encirclement of Copenhagen and three days of bombardment of the capital, the Danes requested a cease-fire. When the British left they took with them, as their property, the entire Danish navy and its equipment.

Without its navy, Denmark felt compelled to accept the French ultimatum and join France and its allies in the war. In the treaty alliance, Napoleon promised his support in case of an attack on Denmark and guaranteed the territorial integrity of the kingdom, while the Danish government undertook to join the Continental System and, together with France and Russia, declare war on Sweden to force it to follow suit. Thus Denmark, after generations of neutrality, peace and prosperity, ended up actively involved in a major European war.

The later years of that war became increasingly foreboding for Denmark. In 1810, when marshal Bernadotte was made an heir to the Swedish throne under the name of Carl Johan, the old idea of taking Norway away from Denmark received new impetus in Stockholm. Over the next few years Frederick VI, as the crown prince had become in 1808, and his advisers were disturbed by news of successive Swedish plans for taking possession of Norway, and at one stage also parts of Denmark itself, with the support of one or more of the great powers. However, they were still inclined to rely on the guarantee of Napoleon, who renewed the alliance treaty in 1812. But after the subsequent defeats of the French army in Russia the insecurity of Denmark became more obvious. The king, still focusing narrowly on the possession of Norway, maintained his confidence in the military genius of Napoleon and decided to remain his ally. On the other hand, the Danish foreign minister and several other advisers, now increasingly apprehensive for the very survival of the state, feared the possibility of their country ending up as the ally of a defeated Napoleon and wanted Denmark to seek support elsewhere. The immediate anxiety about the loss of Norway and the deeper fear of a deprivation of independent statehood became the twin preoccupations in Danish circles in the final stages of the war and first years of the peace.

Early in 1814 the peace treaty with Sweden was signed in Kiel. Denmark had to hand over all of Norway, but – apparently as a result of the pressure of time and an oversight by the Swedish negotiator – kept Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. As compensation it received Swedish Pomerania, which however went to Prussia in the subsequent Vienna settlement. Instead Frederick VI was made duke of Lauenburg. In the peace settlement with Britain, various colonies were returned to Denmark, but not the navy; and the island of Heligoland went to Britain. As part of the post-Napoleonic settlement of Germany, Holstein and Lauenburg joined the new German Confederation, where their representative in the Diet became the Danish sovereign.

Thus, 1814 marked one of the lowest points in modern Danish history. Only seven years after the seizure of its navy and one year after the financial bankruptcy of the kingdom, Denmark lost about two thirds of its territory (Greenland excluded) and one third of its population. Domestically, poverty and unemployment added to the burden. As the great loser of the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark found itself isolated and exposed when peace returned. For some time, its very survival as an independent state seemed at stake. A Norwegian rebellion against the transition to Sweden, which raised doubts about the role of the Danish government and led the great powers to set up a commission to determine its responsibility for the events in Norway, gave Carl Johan another opportunity to pursue his project of securing the Danish islands, Zealand in particular, for Sweden. The Russians, too, seemed to present a threat. After their peace with Denmark they left an army in Holstein, which gradually grew bigger and eventually occupied nearly all of the duchy. Thus, on the eve of the Congress of Vienna, which the king attended uninvited, there was a real fear in Denmark that the country might be about to suffer a fate comparable to that of Poland in the eighteenth century. For a while, defeatism set in.

Only a few months later, however, the danger began to recede. The tsar, satisfied with developments in Norway, ratified the peace and started to withdraw his troops. The fear of a military attack from Sweden lingered for some time yet. However, once the central issue became payment of the Norwegian part of the debt of the Danish kingdom the tension between the two

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